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Spies in the Sky: The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence during World War II

May 18, 2017, 6:30pm BST - 8:00pm
Royal Air Force Museum

No. 4 Hamilton Place
London W1J 7BQ
United Kingdom

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On 18 May, Taylor Downing examines the secret battle for aerial intelligence during the Second World War.


At the centre of Allied Intelligence operations during the Second World War was the work carried out at two country houses just outside London. Both were near to railway lines with easy access to the capital. Moreover, both operations soon outgrew the country houses themselves, and brick and concrete huts sprawled out across the grounds and gardens. The work carried out at one of these country houses, Bletchley Park, is now well known. There have been novels, movies and dozens of books about Bletchley Park. However, the story of the top-secret intelligence work carried out at RAF Medmenham and of the equally remarkable group of boffins and mavericks who were gathered there is still relatively unknown. Following on from work done in the First World War, the RAF assembled an unusual group of eccentrics, boffins, academics and inventors who developed a completely new science of decoding and reading aerial photographs. The work carried out at Medmenham was arguably even more important than that at Bletchley Park, and it was said that 80% of all intelligence in the war came from aerial photography.

Hundreds of brave reconnaissance pilots flew for hours across occupied Europe every day to bring back aerial photographs for the Photo Interpreters (PIs) at Medmenham. The PIs could analyse the movement of ships and trains and see what cargoes were being freighted around Europe. They could look down into factories and see the war weapons, aircraft and machines that were being produced. They could see from the enemy's shipyards what submarines and other vessels were under construction and so predict the strength of the German Navy up to a year ahead. Moreover, by studying every new building, they could find the location of secret factories and missile launch sites and then direct Allied bombers to them. After every raid, they could assess the damage and report whether the factory or military installation had been put out of action or whether it needed to be bombed again. There was almost nothing of military significance taking place in Nazi-occupied Europe that escaped the spies in the sky.

This is the history of how a secret science was developed to read and measure aerial imagery, how the use of 3D photographs was developed and how a mass of data was built up about the German war economy. An extraordinary group of men worked at Medmenham, and an even more remarkable group of women worked there.


Please note that this lecture will be held at the Headquarters of the Royal Aeronautical Society at No. 4 Hamilton Place, London W1J 7BQ at 18:30PM on Thursday 18 May 2017.


This lecture is free of charge however: we do ask that you pre-book a free ticket, as seats are limited. Booking is quick and easy, we just need some basic contact information.


Taylor Downing is a best-selling historian and an award-winning television producer. He writes about scientists and war. His book Spies in the Sky (Little, Brown) came out in 2011 to much acclaim. Andrew Roberts wrote that the book filled 'a huge gap in Second World War historiography in both an exciting and intellectually stimulating way.' Prof David Reynolds described the book as 'A fascinating read and a significant contribution to the history of World War Two.' Taylor regularly gives talks around the country and has lectured at the Imperial War Museum, the National Army Museum, the British Museum and at Bletchley Park and at many other universities, history societies and book festivals.


The Trenchard Lectures in Air Power Studies form part of the RAF Museum's Research Programme for 2017. This programme also consists of the First World War in the Air Lunchtime Lectures, Cold War Lunchtime Lectures and other events such as conferences.

For more details about the RAF Museum’s research programme, please email our Historian, Dr Ross Mahoney at

The Trenchard Lectures in Air Power Studies are held in conjunction with the Royal Aeronautical Society and the War Studies Department at the University of Wolverhampton.

Please note that lectures are subject to change.

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May 18, 2017, 5:00pm BST

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